Episode 342: Giant Snails and Giant Crabs

Thanks to Tobey and Anbo for their suggestions this week! We’re going to learn about some giant invertebrates!

Further reading:

The Invasive Giant African Land Snail Has Been Spotted in Florida

A very big shell:

The giant African snail is pretty darn giant [photo from article linked above]:

The largest giant spider crab ever measured, and a person:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about some giant invertebrates, suggested by Tobey and Anbo. Maybe they’re not as big as dinosaurs or whales, but they’re surprisingly big compared to most invertebrates.

Let’s start with Tobey’s suggestion, about a big gastropod. Gastropods include slugs and snails, and while Tobey suggested the African trumpet snail specifically, I couldn’t figure out which species of snail it is. But it did lead me to learning a lot about some really big snails.

The very biggest snail known to be alive today is called the Australian trumpet snail, Syrinx aruanus. This isn’t the kind of snail you’d find in your garden, though. It’s a sea snail that lives in shallow water off the coast of northern Australia, around Papua New Guinea, and other nearby areas. It has a coiled shell that’s referred to as spindle-shaped, because the coils form a point like the spindle of a tower. It’s a pretty common shape for sea snails and you’ve undoubtedly seen this kind of seashell before if you’ve spent any time on the beach. But unless you live in the places where the Australian trumpet lives, you probably haven’t seen a seashell this size. The Australian trumpet’s shell can grow up to three feet long, or 91 cm. Not only is this a huge shell, the snail itself is really heavy. It can weigh as much as 31 lbs, or 14 kg, which is as heavy as a good-sized dog.

The snail eats worms, but not just any old worms. If you remember episode 289, you might remember that Australia is home to the giant beach worm, a polychaete worm that burrows in the sand between high and low tide marks. It can grow as much as 8 feet long, or 2.4 meters, and probably longer. Well, that’s the type of worm the Australian trumpet likes to eat, along with other worms. The snail extends a proboscis into the worm’s burrow to reach the worm, but although I’ve tried to find out how it actually captures the worm in order to eat it, this seems to be a mystery. Like other gastropods, the Australian trumpet eats by scraping pieces of food into its mouth using a radula. That’s a tongue-like structure studded with tiny sharp teeth, and the Australian trumpet has a formidable radula. Some other sea snails, especially cone snails, are able to paralyze or outright kill prey by injecting it with venom via a proboscis, so it’s possible the Australian trumpet does too. The Australian trumpet is related to cone snails, although not very closely.

Obviously, we know very little about the Australian trumpet, even though it’s not hard to find. The trouble is that its an edible snail to humans and humans also really like those big shells and will pay a lot for them. In some areas people have hunted the snail to extinction, but we don’t even know how common it is overall to know if it’s endangered or not.

Tobey may have been referring to the giant African snail, which is probably the largest living land snail known. There are several snails that share the name “giant African snail,” and they’re all big, but the biggest is Lissachatina fulica. It can grow more than 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and its conical shell is usually brown and white with pretty banding in some of the whorls. It looks more like the shell of a sea snail than a land snail, but the shell is incredibly tough.

The giant African snail is an invasive species in many areas. Not only will it eat plants down to nothing, it will also eat stucco and concrete for the minerals they contain. It even eats sand, cardboard, certain rocks, bones, and sometimes other African giant snails, presumably when it runs out of trees and houses to eat. It can spread diseases to plants, animals, and humans, which is a problem since it’s also edible.

Like many snails, the African giant snail is a simultaneous hermaphrodite, meaning it can produce both sperm and eggs. It can’t self-fertilize its own eggs, but after mating a snail can keep any unused sperm alive in its body for up to two years, using it to fertilize eggs during that whole time, and it can lay up to 200 eggs five or six times a year. In other words, it only takes a single snail to produce a wasteland of invasive snails in a very short amount of time.

In June 2023, some African giant snails were found near Miami, Florida and officials placed the whole area under agricultural quarantine. That means no one can move any soil or plants out of the area without permission, since that could cause the snails to spread to other places. Meanwhile, officials are working to eradicate the snails. Other parts of Florida are also under the same quarantine after the snails were found the year before. Sometimes when people go on vacation in the Caribbean they bring back garden plants, without realizing that the soil in the pot contains giant African snail eggs, because the giant African snail is also an invasive species throughout the Caribbean.

Next, Anbo wanted to learn about the giant spider crab, also called the Japanese spider crab because it lives in the Pacific Ocean around Japan. It is indeed a type of crab, which is a crustacean, which is an arthropod, and it has the largest legspan of any arthropod known. Its body can grow 16 inches across, or 40 cm, and it can weigh as much as 42 pounds, or 19 kg, which is almost as big as the biggest lobster. But its legs are really really really long. Really long! It can have a legspan of 12 feet across, or 3.7 meters! That includes the claws at the end of its front legs. Most individual crabs are much smaller, but since crustaceans continue to grow throughout their lives, and the giant spider crab can probably live to be 100 years old, there’s no reason why some crabs couldn’t be even bigger than 12 feet across. Its long legs are delicate, though, and it’s rare to find an old crab that hasn’t had an injury to at least one leg.

The giant spider crab is orange with white spots, sort of like a koi fish but in crab form. Its carapace is also bumpy and spiky. You wouldn’t think a crab this size would need to worry about predators, but it’s actually eaten by large octopuses. The crab sticks small organisms like sponges and kelp to its carapace to help camouflage it.

The giant spider crab is considered a delicacy in some places, which has led to overfishing. It’s now protected in Japan, where people are only allowed to catch the crabs during part of the year. This allows the crabs to safely mate and lay eggs.

There’s another species called the European spider crab that has long legs, but it’s nowhere near the size of the giant spider crab. Its carapace width is barely 8 ½ inches across, or 22 cm, and its legs are about the same length. Remember that the giant spider crab’s legs can be up to six feet long each, or 1.8 meters. While the European spider crab does resemble the giant spider crab in many ways, it’s actually not closely related to it. They two species belong to separate families.

The giant spider crab spends most of its time in deep water, although in mating season it will come into shallower water. It uses its long legs to walk around on the sea floor, searching for food. It’s an omnivore that eats pretty much anything it can find, including plants, dead animals, and algae, but it will also use its claws to open mollusk shells and eat the animals inside. It prefers rocky areas of the sea floor, since its bumpy carapace blends in well among rocks.

Scientists report that the giant spider crab is mostly good-natured, even though it looks scary. Some big aquariums keep giant spider crabs, and the aquarium workers say the same thing. But it does have strong claws, and if it feels threatened it can seriously injure divers. I shouldn’t need to remind you not to pester a crab with a 12-foot legspan.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 341: The Leaf Sheep and the Mold Pig

Thanks to Murilo and an anonymous listener for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

The ‘sheep’ that can photosynthesize

Meet the ‘mold pigs,’ a new group of invertebrates from 30 million years ago

A leaf sheep:

Shaun the sheep:

A mold pig:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week let’s learn about two animals that sound like you’d find them on a farm, but they’re much different than their names imply. Thanks to Murilo for suggesting the leaf sheep, which is where we’ll start.

The leaf sheep isn’t a sheep or a leaf. It’s actually a type of sea slug that lives in tropical waters near Japan and throughout much of coastal south Asia. The reason it’s called a leaf sheep is because it actually looks a lot like a tiny cartoon sheep covered with green leaves instead of wool.

Back in episode 215 we talked about the sea bunny, which is another type of sea slug although it’s not closely related to the leaf sheep. The leaf sheep is even smaller than the sea bunny, which can grow up to an inch long, or about 25 mm. The leaf sheep only grows about 10 mm long at most, which explains why it wasn’t discovered until 1993. No one noticed it.

The leaf sheep’s face is white or pale yellow with two tiny black dots for eyes set close together, which kind of makes it look like Shaun the Sheep. It also has two black-tipped protuberances that look like ears, although they’re actually chemoreceptors called rhinophores. The rest of its body is covered with leaf-shaped spines called cerata, which are green and often tipped with pink, white, or black. This helps disguise it as a plant, but there’s another reason why it’s green.

The leaf sheep eats a particular kind of algae called Avrainvillea, which looks like moss or fuzzy carpet. While algae aren’t exactly plants or animals, many do photosynthesize like plants. In other words, they transform sunlight into energy to keep them alive. In order to photosynthesize, a plant or algae uses a special pigment called chlorophyll that makes up part of a chloroplast in its cells, which happens to be green.

The leaf sheep eats the algae, but it doesn’t digest the chloroplasts. Instead, it absorbs them into its own body and uses them for photosynthesis. That way it gets nutrients from eating and digesting algae and it gets extra energy from sunlight. This is a trait shared by other sea slugs in the superorder Sacoglossa. Because they need sunlight for photosynthesis, they live in shallow water, often near coral reefs.

When the leaf sheep’s eggs hatch, the larvae have shells, but as they mature they shed their shells.

This is a good place to talk about cyanobacteria, which was requested ages ago by an anonymous listener. Cyanobacteria mostly live in water and are also called blue-green algae, even though they’re not actually classified as algae. They’re considered bacteria, although not every scientist agrees. Some are unicellular, meaning they just consist of one cell, while others are multicellular like plants and animals, which means they have multiple cells specialized for different functions. Some other cyanobacteria group together in colonies. So basically, cyanobacteria looked at the chart of possible life forms and said, “yes, thanks, we’ll take some of everything.” That’s why it’s so hard to classify them.

Cyanobacteria photosynthesize, and they’ve been doing so for far longer than plants–possibly as much as 2.7 billion years, although scientists think cyanobacteria originally evolved around 3.5 billion years ago. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old and plants didn’t evolve until about 700 million years ago.

Like most plants also do, cyanobacteria produce oxygen as part of the photosynthetic process, and when they started doing so around 2.7 billion years ago, they changed the entire world. Before then, earth’s atmosphere hardly contained any oxygen. If you had a time machine and went back to more than two billion years ago, and you forgot to bring an oxygen tank, you’d instantly suffocate trying to breathe the air. But back then, even though animals and plants didn’t yet exist, the world contained a whole lot of microbial life, and none of it wanted anything to do with oxygen. Oxygen was toxic to the lifeforms that lived then, but cyanobacteria just kept producing it.

Cyanobacteria are tiny, but there were a lot of them. Over the course of about 700 million years, the oxygen added up until other lifeforms started to go extinct, poisoned by all that oxygen in the oceans and air. By two billion years ago, pretty much every lifeform that couldn’t evolve to use or at least tolerate oxygen had gone extinct. So take a deep breath of life-giving oxygen and thank cyanobacteria, which by the way are still around and still producing oxygen. However, they’re still up to their old tricks because they also produce what are called cyanotoxins, which can be deadly.

That brings us to another animal in our imaginary farm, the mold pig. It’s not a pig or a mold, and unlike the leaf sheep and cyanobacteria, it’s extinct. At least, we think it’s extinct.

The mold pig is a microinvertebrate only discovered in 2019. The only reason we know about it at all is because of amber found in the Dominican Republic, on an island in the Caribbean Sea. As we’ve discussed in past episodes, especially episode 108, amber is the fossilized resin of certain types of tree, and sometimes the remains of small animals are found inside. Often these animals are insects, but sometimes even tinier creatures are preserved that we would otherwise probably never know about.

The mold pig was about 100 micrometers long, or .1 millimeter. You’ve probably heard of the tardigrade, or water bear, which we talked about in episode 234, and if so you might think the mold pig was a type of tardigrade just from looking at it, since it looks similar. It had four pairs of legs like tardigrades do, but while scientists think they were related, and that the mold pig was probably also related to mites, it was different enough that it’s been classified in its own genus and may need to belong to its own phylum. Its official name is Sialomorpha.

The mold pig probably ate mold, fungus, and microscopic invertebrates. It lived around 30 million years ago, and right now that’s about all we know about it. There’s a good chance that it still survives somewhere in the world, but it’s so tiny that it’s even easier to overlook than the leaf sheep. Maybe you will be the person who rediscovers its living descendants.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 338: Updates 6 and an Arboreal Clam!?!

This week we have our annual updates and corrections episode, and at the end of the episode we’ll learn about a really weird clam I didn’t even think was real at first.

Thanks to Simon and Anbo for sending in some corrections!

Further reading:

Lessons on transparency from the glass frog

Hidden, never-before-seen penguin colony spotted from space

Rare wild asses spotted near China-Mongolia border

Aye-Ayes Use Their Elongated Fingers to Pick Their Nose

Homo sapiens likely arose from multiple closely related populations

Scientists Find Earliest Evidence of Hominins Cooking with Fire

153,000-Year-Old Homo sapiens Footprint Discovered in South Africa

Newly-Discovered Tyrannosaur Species Fills Gap in Lineage Leading to Tyrannosaurus rex

Earth’s First Vertebrate Superpredator Was Shorter and Stouter than Previously Thought

252-Million-Year-Old Insect-Damaged Leaves Reveal First Fossil Evidence of Foliar Nyctinasty

The other paleo diet: Rare discovery of dinosaur remains preserved with its last meal

The Mongolian wild ass:

The giant barb fish [photo from this site]:

Enigmonia aenigmatica, AKA the mangrove jingle shell, on a leaf:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week is our annual updates and corrections episode, but we’ll also learn about the mangrove jingle shell, a clam that lives in TREES. A quick reminder that this isn’t a comprehensive updates episode, because that would take 100 years to prepare and would be hours and hours long, and I don’t have that kind of time. It’s just whatever caught my eye during the last year that I thought was interesting.

First, we have a few corrections. Anbo emailed me recently with a correction from episode 158. No one else caught this, as far as I can remember. In that episode I said that geckos don’t have eyelids, and for the most part that’s true. But there’s one family of geckos that does have eyelids, Eublepharidae. This includes the leopard gecko, and that lines up with Anbo’s report of having a pet leopard gecko who definitely blinked its eyes. This family of geckos are sometimes even called eyelid geckos. Also, Anbo, I apologize for mispronouncing your name in last week’s episode about shrimp.

After episode 307, about the coquí and glass frogs, Simon pointed out that Hawaii doesn’t actually have any native frogs or amphibians at all. It doesn’t even have any native reptiles unless you count sea snakes and sea turtles. The coqui frog is an invasive species introduced by humans, and because it has no natural predators in Hawaii it has disrupted the native ecosystem in many places, eating all the available insects. Three of the Hawaiian islands remain free of the frogs, and conservationists are working to keep it that way while also figuring out ways to get them off of the other islands. Simon also sent me the chapter of the book he’s working on that talks about island frogs, and I hope the book is published soon because it is so much fun to read!

Speaking of frogs, one week after episode 307, an article about yet another way the glass frog is able to hide from predators was published in Science. When a glass frog is active, its blood is normal, but when it settles down to sleep, the red blood cells in its blood collect in its liver. The liver is covered with teensy guanine crystals that scatter light, which hides the red color from view. That makes the frog look even more green and leaf-like!

We’ve talked about penguins in several episodes, and emperor penguins specifically in episode 78. The emperor penguin lives in Antarctica and is threatened by climate change as the earth’s climate warms and more and more ice melts. We actually don’t know all that much about the emperor penguin because it lives in a part of the world that’s difficult for humans to explore. In December 2022, a geologist named Peter Fretwell was studying satellite photos of Antarctica to measure the loss of sea ice when he noticed something strange. Some of the ice had brown stains.

Dr Fretwell knew exactly what those stains were: emperor penguin poop. When he obtained higher-resolution photos, he was able to zoom in and see the emperor penguins themselves. But this wasn’t a colony he knew about. It was a completely undiscovered colony.

In episode 292 we talked about a mystery animal called the kunga, and in that episode we also talked a lot about domestic and wild donkeys. We didn’t cover the Mongolian wild ass in that one, but it’s very similar to wild asses in other parts of the world. It’s also called the Mongolian khulan. It used to be a lot more widespread than it is now, but these days it only lives in southern Mongolia and northern China. It’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss, climate change, and poaching, even though it’s a protected animal in both Mongolia and China.

In February of 2023, a small herd of eight Mongolian wild asses were spotted along the border of both countries, in a nature reserve. A local herdsman noticed them first and put hay out to make sure the donkeys had enough to eat. The nature reserve has a water station for wild animals to drink from, and has better grazing these days after grassland ecology measures were put into place several years ago.

In episode 233 we talked about the aye-aye of Madagascar, which has weird elongated fingers. Its middle finger is even longer and much thinner than the others, which it uses to pull invertebrates from under tree bark and other tiny crevices. Well, in October of 2022 researchers studying aye-ayes started documenting another use for this long thin finger. The aye-ayes used it to pick their noses. It wasn’t just one aye-aye that wasn’t taught good manners, it was widespread. And I hope you’re not snacking while I tell you this, the aye-aye would then lick its finger clean. Yeah. But the weirdest thing is that the aye-aye’s thin finger is so long that it can potentially reach right through the nose right down into the aye-aye’s throat.

It’s pretty funny and gross, but wondering why some animals pick their noses is a valid scientific question. A lot of apes and monkeys pick their noses, as do humans (not that we admit it most of the time), and now we know aye-ayes do too. The aye-aye is a type of lemur and therefore a primate, but it’s not very closely related to apes and monkeys. Is this just a primate habit or is it only seen in primates because we have fingers that fit into our nostrils? Would all mammals pick their nose if they had fingers that would fit up in there? Sometimes if you have a dried snot stuck in your nose, it’s uncomfortable, but picking your nose can also spread germs if your fingers are dirty. So it’s still a mystery why the aye-aye does it.

A recent article in Nature suggests that Homo sapiens, our own species, may have evolved not from a single species of early human but from the hybridization of several early human species. We already know that humans interbred with Neandertals and Denisovans, but we’re talking about hybridization that happened long before that between hominin species that were even more closely related.

The most genetically diverse population of humans alive today are the Nama people who live in southern Africa, and the reason they’re so genetically diverse is that their ancestors have lived in that part of Africa since humans evolved. Populations that migrated away from the area, whether to different parts of Africa or other parts of the world, had a smaller gene pool to draw from as they moved farther and farther away from where most humans lived.

Now, a new genetic study of modern Nama people has looked at changes in DNA that indicate the ancestry of all humans. The results suggest that before about 120,000 to 135,000 years ago, there was more than one species of human, but that they were all extremely closely related. Since these were all humans, even though they were ancient humans and slightly different genetically, it’s probable that the different groups traded with each other or hunted together, and undoubtedly people from different groups fell in love just the way people do today. Over the generations, all this interbreeding resulted in one genetically stable population of Homo sapiens that has led to modern humans that you see everywhere today. To be clear, as I always point out, no matter where people live or what they look like, all people alive today are genetically human, with only minor variations in our genetic makeup. It’s just that the Nama people still retain a lot of clues about our very distant ancestry that other populations no longer show.

To remind everyone how awesome out distant ancestors were, here’s one new finding of how ancient humans lived. We know that early humans and Neandertals were cooking their food at least 170,000 years ago, but recently archaeologists found the remains of an early hominin settlement in what is now Israel where people were cooking fish 780,000 years ago. There were different species of fish remains found along with the remains of cooking fires, and some of the fish are ones that have since gone extinct. One was a carp-like fish called the giant barb that could grow 10 feet long, or 3 meters.

In other ancient human news, the oldest human footprint was discovered recently in South Africa. You’d think that we would have lots of ancient human footprints, but that’s actually not the case when it comes to footprints more than 50,000 years old. There are only 14 human footprints older than that, although there are older footprints found made by ancestors of modern humans. The newly discovered footprint dates to 153,000 years ago.

It wouldn’t be an updates episode without mentioning Tyrannosaurus rex. In late 2022 a newly discovered tyrannosaurid was described. It lived about 76 million years ago in what is now Montana in the United States, and while it wasn’t as big as T. rex, it was still plenty big. It probably stood about seven feet high at the hip, or a little over 2 meters, and might have been 30 feet long, or 9 meters. It probably wasn’t a direct ancestor of T. rex, just a closely related cousin, although we don’t know for sure yet. It’s called Daspletosaurus wilsoni and it shows some traits that are found in older Tyrannosaur relations but some that were more modern at the time.

Dunkleosteus is one of a number of huge armored fish that lived in the Devonian period, about 360 million years ago. We talked about it way back in episode 33, back in 2017, and at that time paleontologists thought Dunkleosteus terrelli might have grown over 30 feet long, or 9 meters. It had a heavily armored head but its skeleton was made of cartilage like a shark’s, and cartilage doesn’t generally fossilize, so while we have well-preserved head plates, we don’t know much about the rest of its body.

With the publication in early 2023 of a new study about dunkleosteus’s size, we’re pretty sure that 30 feet was a huge overestimation. It was probably less than half that length, maybe up to 13 feet long, or almost 4 meters. Previous size estimates used sharks as size models, but dunkleosteus would have been shaped more like a tuna. Maybe you think of tuna as a fish that makes a yummy sandwich, but tuna are actually huge and powerful predators that can grow up to 10 feet long, or 3 meters. Tuna are also much heavier and bigger around than sharks, and that was probably true for dunkleosteus too. The study’s lead even says dunkleosteus was built like a wrecking ball, and points out that it was probably the biggest animal alive at the time. I’m also happy to report that people have started calling it chunk-a-dunk.

We talked about trace fossils in episode 103. Scientists can learn a lot from trace fossils, which is a broad term that encompasses things like footprints, burrows, poops, and even toothmarks. Recently a new study looked at insect damage on leaves dating back 252 million years and learned something really interesting. Some modern plants fold up their leaves at night, called foliar nyctinasty, which is sometimes referred to as sleeping. The plant isn’t asleep in the same way that an animal falls asleep, but “sleeping” is a lot easier to say than foliar nyctinasty. Researchers didn’t know if folding leaves at night was a modern trait or if it’s been around for a long time in some plants. Lots of fossilized leaves are folded over, but we can’t tell if that happened after the leaf fell off its plant or after the plant died.

Then a team of paleontologists from China and Sweden studying insect damage to leaves noticed that some leaves had identical damage on both sides, exactly as though the leaf had been folded and an insect had eaten right through it. That’s something that happens in modern plants when they’re asleep and the leaves are folded closed.

The team looked at fossilized leaves from a group of trees called gigantopterids, which lived between 300 and 250 million years ago. They’re extinct now but were advanced plants at the time, some of the earliest flowering plants. They also happen to have really big leaves that often show insect damage. The team determined that the trees probably did fold their leaves while sleeping.

In episode 151 we talked about fossils found with other fossils inside them. Basically it’s when a fossil is so well preserved that the contents of the dead animal’s digestive system are preserved. This is incredibly rare, naturally, but recently a new one was discovered.

Microraptor was a dinosaur that was only about the size of a modern crow, one of the smallest dinosaurs, and it probably looked a lot like a weird bird. It could fly, although probably not very well compared to modern birds, and in addition to front legs that were modified to form wings, its back legs also had long feathers to form a second set of wings.

Several exceptionally well preserved Microraptor fossils have been discovered in China, some of them with parts of their last meals in the stomach area, including a fish, a bird, and a lizard, so we knew they were generalist predators when it came to what they would eat. Now we have another Microraptor fossil with the fossilized foot of a mammal in the place where the dinosaur’s stomach once was. So we know that Microraptor ate mammals as well as anything else it could catch, although we don’t know what kind of mammal this particular leg belonged to. It may be a new species.

Let’s finish with the mangrove jingle shell. I’ve had it on the list for a long time with a lot of question marks after it. It’s a clam that lives in trees, and I actually thought it might be an animal made up for an April fool’s joke. But no, it’s a real clam that really does live in trees.

The mangrove jingle shell lives on the mangrove tree. Mangroves are adapted to live in brackish water, meaning a mixture of fresh and salt water, or even fully salt water. They mostly live in tropical or subtropical climates along coasts, and especially like to live in waterways where there’s a tide. The tide brings freshly oxygenated water to its roots. A mangrove tree needs oxygen to survive just like animals do, but it has trouble getting enough through its roots when they’re underwater. Its root system is extensive and complicated, with special types of roots that help it stay upright when the tide goes out and special roots called pneumatophores, which stick up above the water or soil and act as straws, allowing the tree to absorb plenty of oxygen from the air even when the rest of the root system is underwater. These pneumatophores are sometimes called knees, but different species of mangrove have different pneumatophore shapes and sizes.

One interesting thing about the mangrove tree is that its seeds actually sprout while they’re still attached to the parent tree. When it’s big enough, the seedling drops off its tree into the water and can float around for a long time before it finds somewhere to root. If can even survive drying out for a year or more.

The mangrove jingle shell clam lives in tropical areas of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, and is found throughout much of coastal southeast Asia all the way down to parts of Australia. It grows a little over one inch long, or 3 cm, and like other clams it finds a place to anchor itself so that water flows past it all the time and it can filter tiny food particles from the water. It especially likes intertidal areas, which happens to be the same area that mangroves especially like.

Larval jingle shells can swim, but they need to find somewhere solid to anchor themselves as they mature. When a larva finds a mangrove root, it attaches itself and grows a domed shell. If it finds a mangrove leaf, since mangrove branches often trail into the water, it attaches itself to the underside and grows a flatter shell. Clams attached to leaves are lighter in color than clams attached to roots or branches. Fortunately, the mangrove is an evergreen tree that doesn’t drop its leaves every year.

So there you have it. Arboreal clams! Not a hoax or an April fool’s joke.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 335: Large Blue Butterfly vs Ants

We’re kicking off July with a beautiful butterfly that does horrible things to ants!

Further reading:

UK Butterflies – Large Blue

The large blue butterfly (picture taken from page linked above):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I recently realized that I have so many weird and interesting invertebrates saved up to feature for invertebrate August that I can’t fit them all into one month, so let’s kick off invertebrate August in July!

This week we’re going to learn about a beautiful butterfly called the large blue, because it is both large and blue. Well, sort of large. The butterfly has a wingspan of up to two inches, or about 5 cm. Its wings are a dusty blue with black spots, although there are a lot of regional differences. Some populations are almost black, some are more tan than blue, and some don’t have spots.

The large blue lives throughout much of Eurasia, although its numbers have decreased in many places in the last 50 years or so. In some places it’s even gone extinct, mainly due to habitat loss. It needs specific host plants for the caterpillars to eat, and it also needs a particular type of ant in order for the caterpillars to survive–because the large blue caterpillar is a brood parasite!

We’ve talked about brood parasites before in birds, where a bird will lay an egg in the nest of a different species of bird. In the case of the large blue butterfly, in summertime the female lays her eggs on wild thyme or marjoram plants near a colony of red ants in the genus Myrmica [meer-mee-kuh]. She usually only lays one egg on any given plant.

When the eggs hatch, the newly emerged caterpillars feed on plants at first, just like any other caterpillar, especially the flowers of the plant. If more than one large blue caterpillar is on a plant and they encounter each other, one of them will grab the other and eat it. Drama among the thyme plants! The caterpillar goes through three growth stages, called instars, as an ordinary caterpillar (except for the cannibalism thing), but once it reaches the fourth instar it starts acting very different.

The caterpillar drops to the ground and releases a chemical that mimics the smell of the Myrmica ant larvae. When an ant finds a caterpillar, the caterpillar will rear up so that it resembles an ant larva. The ant usually takes it back to its nest at this point, but sometimes the caterpillar will just follow an ant trail and enter the nest on its own. Either way, the ants will assume it’s a lost baby and take it to the nesting chamber, where they feed and take care of it.

The caterpillar is bigger than a usual ant larva, but it uses this to its advantage. It mimics the sounds made by a queen ant, which means the ants take extra good care of it. If the ants run out of regular food to feed the caterpillar, they will even start feeding it real ant larvae. But sometimes the caterpillar gets impatient, or maybe just hungry, and will just start eating the other pupating ant larvae.

The system isn’t perfect, because a lot of times the ants figure out that the caterpillar is an intruder and will kill and eat it. If the queen ant encounters the caterpillar, she recognizes that it isn’t an ant larva and will attack it. Sometimes the ants just up and abandon the nest, leaving the caterpillar behind. In that case, the caterpillar will either leave the nest itself and find another one, or it will wait for a new ant colony to find the nest and move in. This can actually happen repeatedly during the nine months or so that the caterpillar requires to finish growing, although during the winter the caterpillar is more or less dormant.

Around the end of spring, the caterpillar spins a cocoon and pupates right there in the ant nest. The ants continue to take care of it, making sure the pupa is clean. When it emerges as a new butterfly after a few weeks, it has to find its way out of the ant nest and to the surface, where it climbs a plant stem and rests while its wings inflate and dry. The adult butterflies only live for a few weeks, eating flower nectar, especially of the thyme plant.

One of the places where the large blue butterfly went extinct was in the British Isles, where it was last seen in 1979. Before that, though, scientists already recognized that the species was in danger in Britain. They knew that the butterflies needed wild thyme and Myrmica ants, and made sure to plant lots of the thyme in areas with lots of Myrmica ant colonies. But the butterflies still declined until none were left in Britain. It turns out that the large blue butterfly requires a particular species of Myrmica ant, Myrmica sabuleti, and if the caterpillars are adopted by other ant species, they aren’t usually successful in surviving to grow up.

Fortunately, a few years later, scientists re-introduced large blue butterflies to Britain from Sweden, and this time it worked. Not only are there still large blue butterflies in Britain again, they’re now more common in Britain than anywhere else throughout its range.

Other butterflies closely related to the large blue also act as brood parasites to Myrmica ants, but to different species. There are probably more butterflies that do this than we know, since it takes a lot of very careful observation of the butterflies, caterpillars, and ants to determine what exactly is going on. Considering that even the ants don’t really know what’s going on, it’s no surprise that scientists have trouble figuring it out too.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 333: Robins and Ravens

Thanks to Liesbet, Simon, and Thea for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some birds!

Further reading:

Blue Tits and Milk Bottle Tops

Ravens parallel great apes in flexible planning for tool-use and bartering

Further watching:

A Raven Calling [this is a great video of a raven making all sorts of interesting sounds–I only used a tiny clip of it in the episode but it’s worth watching the whole thing]

The European robin:

The American robin and a worm that is having a very bad day:

A blue tit [photo By © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37675470]:

A blue tit about to get the cap off that milk bottle [photo from link above]:

The Eastern bluebird:

A raven:

An American crow:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we have suggestions from Liesbet, Simon, and Thea, who suggested some relatively common birds that you may already think you know all about, but there’s lots to learn about them!

We’ll start with Liesbet’s suggestion, about the European robin and bluebird, and while we’re at it we’ll learn about the American robin and bluebird. The European and American birds are completely different species. The reason they have the same names is because when Europeans first started paying attention to the birds of North America, they needed names for the birds. The native peoples had names for them, of course, but the Europeans wanted names in a language they understood, so in a lot of cases they just borrowed names already in use at home.

Let’s start with the robin, which we also talked about way back in episode 81.

The European robin is a little bitty bird, only around 5 inches long, or 13 cm, with a brown back, streaked gray or buff belly, and orange face and breast. It has a short black bill and round black eyes. It eats insects, worms, berries, and seeds. The eggs are pale brown with reddish speckles.

It lives throughout much of Eurasia, but robins in Britain tend to be fairly tame, probably because they were traditionally considered beneficial in Britain and Ireland, so farmers and gardeners wouldn’t hurt them. In other parts of Europe they were hunted and are much more shy. European robins are also common on Christmas cards in Britain and Ireland, possibly because in the olden days, postmen used to wear red jackets. The postmen started to be called robins as a result, and since postmen bring Christmas cards, the bird robin became linked with card delivery and finally just ended up on the Christmas cards. Plus, their orange markings are cheerful in winter.

This is what the European robin sounds like:

[robin song]

The American robin is a type of thrush. It lives year-round in most of the United States and parts of Mexico, spends summers in much of Canada, and winters in parts of Mexico. It’s very different from the European robin. The European robin is tiny and round and adorable, while the American robin is big and always looks kind of angry. It grows around 10 inches long, or 25 cm. It’s dark gray on its back, with a rusty red breast, white undertail coverts, and a long yellow bill. It also has white markings around its eyes. Young birds are speckled. It mostly eats insects, worms, and berries.

If you see a bird on the ground, running quickly and then stopping, it’s probably a robin. Mostly the robin hunts bugs by sight, but it has good hearing and can actually hear worms moving around underground. You can sometimes see a robin with its head cocked, listening for a worm, before pouncing and pulling it out of the ground, just like in a cartoon.

American robin eggs are a light teal blue, so common and well-known that robin’s-egg-blue is a typical description of that particular color. In the spring after eggs hatch, the mother robin will carry the eggshells away from the nest to drop them, so predators won’t see the shells and know there’s a nest nearby. That’s why you’ll sometimes see half a robin eggshell on the sidewalk. It doesn’t mean something bad happened to the baby, just that the mother bird is doing her job. Both parents feed the chicks, and the parents also carry off the babies’ droppings to scatter them away from the nest.

This is what an American robin’s song sounds like.

[robin song]

Liesbet also wanted to learn about the European bluebird, more commonly called the Eurasian blue tit. We haven’t talked about it or the American bluebird before, even though they’re both beautiful birds.

The blue tit lives throughout Europe and parts of western Asia. It grows around 4 and a half inches long, or 12 cm, and has a bright blue crown on its head with blue on its wings, tail, and back. Its face is mostly white but it has a black streak that crosses its eye and a black ring around its neck. In fact, if you’re familiar with the blue jay of North America, the blue tit looks a lot like a miniature blue jay. It even has a little bit of a crest that it can raise and lower.

Because it eats a lot of insects and other small invertebrates, along with some seeds, the blue tit is an acrobatic bird. It will hang upside down from a twig to reach a caterpillar on the underside of a leaf, that sort of thing. It will also peel bits of bark away from a tree trunk to find tiny insects and spiders hiding underneath it. This habit leads it to sometimes peel bits off of people’s houses, like the putty that holds windowpanes in place. It also once led to the blue tit learning a surprising way to find food, and to learn about that, we have to learn a little bit about how people in the olden days got their milk if they didn’t own cows.

Back in the early 20th century, people used to get milk delivered every morning by a milkman. Refrigerators and ice boxes weren’t common like they are today, and most people didn’t have a way to keep milk cold. That meant it would go bad very quickly, so people would just order how much milk they needed in one day and when they got up in the morning, the milkman would have left the milk and other dairy products on the doorstep for the family.

The milk was always whole milk, also called full-fat, and as it sat in its bottles on the doorstep waiting for the family to wake up and bring the milk in, the cream would separate and rise to the top of the milk. Cream is just the fattiest, richest part of the milk. These days milk is processed differently so even if you buy whole milk, the cream won’t separate from it, and most milk sold today has already had most of the cream separated out. That’s why skim milk is called that, because the cream has been skimmed off the top. It’s sold separately as heavy whipping cream or mixed with milk as half-and-half. But back in the olden days, if you wanted to make whipped cream or clotted cream or some other recipe that calls for cream, you’d just skim the cream off yourself to use it.

The problem is, cream is so rich and full of protein that other animals learned to rob milk bottles, especially the blue tit. Birds can’t digest milk, naturally, since only mammals produce milk and are adapted to digest it, and even most adult mammals have trouble digesting milk. But cream contains a lot less lactose than the milk itself, and lactose is the type of sugar in milk that can cause stomach upset in adults. Blue tits learned that if they peeled the little foil cap off a milk bottle, they could get at the cream, and it became such a widespread behavior that each generation of blue tits became more adapted to digest cream.

These days, of course, most people buy their milk at the grocery store. The blue tits have had to go back to eating bugs and seeds.

This is what a blue tit sounds like:

[blue tit song]

The bluebird is a North American bird that also eats insects and other small invertebrates, along with berries and seeds. It grows around 7 inches long, or 18 cm. There are three species, the eastern bluebird and western bluebird, which look similar with bright blue above and white underneath with rusty red breast, and the mountain bluebird, which is blue almost all over and lives in mountainous areas of western North America. The bluebird is a type of thrush, meaning that it’s actually related to the American robin and used to be called the blue robin.

The bluebird spends a lot of its time sitting on a branch and watching for insects in the grass below. When it spots a grasshopper or beetle or spider or even a snail, it will drop down from its branch to grab it. It prefers open grasslands with trees or brush it can perch in, so it’s common around farmland. The mountain bluebird hunts like this too, but it doesn’t always bother to perch and will just hover above the ground until it spots a bug.

This is what an eastern bluebird sounds like:

[bluebird song]

Next, Simon and Thea wanted to learn about crows and ravens. The raven is another bird we covered a long time ago, in episode 112. I had a really bad cold the week of that episode and not only did I sound awful, I didn’t do a very good job with my research. I’m glad to revisit the topic and correct a few mistakes.

Crows and ravens look similar and are closely related, with both belonging to the genus Corvus. There are lots of species and subspecies of both, but let’s talk specifically about the American crow since it’s closely related to the hooded crow and the carrion crow found throughout Europe and Asia. Likewise, we’ll talk about the common raven since it’s found throughout much of the northern hemisphere.

The American crow can grow up to about 20 inches long, or 50 cm, with a wingspan over 3 feet across, or about a meter. Meanwhile, the common raven has a wingspan of up to 5 feet across, or 1.5 meters, and can grow up to 26 inches long, or 67 cm. Both are glossy black all over with large, heavy bills and long legs.

Crows and ravens both mate for life. Crows in particular are devoted family birds, with the grown young of a pair often staying to help their parents raise the next nest.

Both crows and ravens are omnivores, which means they eat pretty much anything. They will eat roadkill and other carrion, fruit and grain, insects, small animals, other birds, and eggs. They’re also extremely smart, which means a crow or raven can figure out how to get into trash cans and other containers to find food that humans think is secure.

Both also sometimes make and use tools, especially sticks that they use to dig out insects in places where their beaks can’t reach. But ravens in particular show a lot of tool use. Ravens sometimes throw pinecones or rocks at people who approach too close to their nests, and will even use sticks to stab at attacking owls. A few ravens have been observed to hold big pieces of bark in their feet while flying in strong winds, and they use the bark as a sort of rudder to help them maneuver. Other cognitive studies of ravens show that they have sophisticated and flexible problem-solving abilities where they can plan at least one step ahead, similar to great apes. Other corvids show similar abilities.

The raven can imitate other animals and birds, even machinery, in addition to making all sorts of calls. It can even imitate human speech. If a raven finds a dead animal but isn’t strong enough to open the carcass to get at the meat, it may imitate a wolf or fox to attract the animal to the carcass. The wolf or fox will open the carcass, and even after it eats as much as it wants, there’s plenty left for the raven.

Ravens also communicate non-vocally with other ravens. A raven will use its beak to point with, the way humans will point with a finger. They’ll also hold something and wave it to get another raven’s attention, which hasn’t been observed in any other animal besides apes.

The raven is much larger and heavier than a crow, and you can also distinguish a crow from a raven by their calls. This is what an American crow sounds like:

[crow call]

And this is what a raven sounds like:

[raven call]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 327: The Humble Marmot

Thanks to Dean for suggesting this week’s topic, the marmot!

Thanks also to Al-Ka-Lines Studio for the beautiful bat pin! You should definitely visit their online shop, because all their jewelry is hand-made by the two of them.

Further reading:

The secret to longevity? Ask a yellow-bellied marmot

The yellow-bellied marmot doing a sit [By Inklein, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2675916]:

A groundhog keeping an eye out for danger:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to have a short little episode about a short little animal suggested by Dean, although I don’t know if Dean is short and/or little. Probably not. The name Dean makes me think of a tall person, probably someone who plays sports and can run really fast, so basically completely unlike a marmot. Dean suggested the marmot, specifically the yellow-bellied marmot.

Before we get started, two quick notes. First, thanks so much to Kathi and Alex of Al-Ka-Lines Studio for the gorgeous bat pin! They make hand-crafted leather jewelry and while they usually sell wholesale to shops, I checked with Kathi to see if it was okay to link to their shop and they said that yes, they sometimes sell to individuals too. I’ve put a link in the show notes in case you’re interested in seeing what they have for sale. They recently started listening to the podcast in order from the first episode and so far they’re not sick of my voice yet.

Second, I’ll be at Furry Weekend Atlanta this coming weekend, assuming you’re listening to this episode when it comes out on May 8, 2023. If you’re going to be there too, let me know and we can meet up. I went to way too many conventions last year so this one and Dragon Con at the end of August are the only ones I have planned this year, and I’m not on any programming on either. I just plan to look at people’s amazing costumes and attend interesting panels and have fun dancing in the evenings. Also, I’ll probably eat a lot of pizza.

Now, on to the marmots!

If you live in North America, you may have seen a marmot without realizing it. I didn’t realize that the groundhogs that are pretty common where I live in the eastern United States are a type of marmot. Similarly, if you live in the western part of North America, especially in mountainous areas, you may have seen the yellow-bellied marmot. Other species of marmot live in Asia, Europe, and other parts of North America. One interesting thing is that the groundhog of eastern North America is actually more closely related to the marmots of Europe and Asia than it is to the other North American marmot species.

Marmots are big rodents related to squirrels, and in fact they’re considered a type of ground squirrel along with the closely related chipmunks and prairie dogs. They dig burrows and mostly eat plant material, and can grow quite large. The largest species is probably the Olympic marmot that only lives in the state of Washington in the Pacific Northwest of North America, which can weigh up to 18 lbs, or 8 kg. That’s its summer weight, though, when it’s had time to eat lots of food. All marmots hibernate and during that time they survive on the fat reserves they build up in warm weather. Basically all marmots are about the size of a cat, but they’re big chonks with short legs, short tails, little round ears, and a blunt muzzle. Its thick fur makes it look even larger than it really is.

The yellow-bellied marmot mostly lives in higher elevations and, like all marmots, it’s well adapted to cold weather. It’s a social animal that lives in small colonies and spends most of its time underground when it’s not out finding food. It’s mostly brown with yellowish markings underneath and a spot of white between its eyes. It usually digs its burrow among rocks and can have multiple burrows in its territory, so if it spots a predator it doesn’t have far to run to get safely underground. It digs an especially deep burrow to hibernate in, sometimes as much as 23 feet deep, or 7 meters. Since it spends as much as eight months hibernating every year, it needs to stay comfortable. It lines its sleeping chamber with dried leaves and even digs a little side burrow that acts as a latrine.

In a study released in March of 2022, a team of scientists studying yellow-bellied marmots discovered that when it hibernates, an adult marmot’s body basically stops aging. The marmot exhibits true hibernation where its body temperature drops almost to the air temperature and its breathing and heart rate slow dramatically. It will hibernate for a week or two, wake up slightly for about a day so it can stretch and rearrange itself more comfortably, and then will go back into hibernation for another few weeks. This goes on for almost three-quarters of the year and during that time, the yellow-bellied marmot doesn’t eat or drink anything. It just lives off its fat reserves, and because its metabolic rate is so low it hardly uses any energy on any given day, only burning about a gram of fat. A small paperclip weighs about a gram, to give you a comparison. As a side effect, the marmot basically only ages during the summer when it’s active. The scientists think this may be the case for all animals that hibernate.

Like other marmots, the yellow-bellied marmot starts its mating season as soon as it emerges from hibernation around May. Males may have several mates and they all live together with him. Females give birth to around four babies during the summer, which like kittens and puppies are born without fur and with their eyes still sealed shut. They stay in the mother’s nesting burrow for the next six weeks, at which point they can see and have grown fur, so they can go outside with their mother. The babies stay with their mother for up to two years.

Most marmot species are social like the yellow-bellied marmot, but the groundhog is different. It’s mostly solitary, although it’s still part of a complex social network of all the groundhogs in a particular area, and sometimes it will share a burrow with other groundhogs. It also prefers lower elevations while most marmots prefer high elevations. It lives throughout most of the eastern United States and throughout much of Canada.

Because the marmot is a relatively big, common animal, it’s an important food source for many animals. Bears will sniff out marmot burrows and dig them open, and badgers, foxes, coyotes, and mountain lions eat lots of marmots in North America. In Europe and Asia, marmots are frequently eaten by foxes, wolves, snow leopards, and hawks. People will eat them too. In parts of Mongolia where marmots are common, it’s been a food source for thousands of years, traditionally prepared on special occasions by putting hot stones into the dead animal’s body cavity and letting the heat cook the meat slowly. But the marmot can carry diseases that humans can catch, including the plague, so these days a dead goat is often used instead of a marmot.

After I learned this, I naturally got distracted and started reading about other traditional Mongolian foods, and now I suddenly remember that I haven’t eaten anything today but trail mix and toast. So I’ll leave you with a final marmot fact. When a marmot sees a predator, it will whistle to warn other marmots, and the whistle sounds like this:

[marmot whistle]

Now I’m going to go make myself dinner. But it won’t be marmot.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 326: The Harpy Eagle and Friends

Thanks to Eva and Anbo for suggesting the harpy eagle!

Further reading:

Crested Eagle Feeding a Post-Fledged Young Harpy Eagle

Harpy eagle with a food [By http://www.birdphotos.com – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3785263]:

The harpy eagle has great big feet and talons:

The harpy eagle with its feather crown raised [photo by Eric Kilby]:

The New Guinea harpy eagle looks similar to its South American cousin [By gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K – New Guinea Harpy Eagle. Harpyopsis novaeguineae, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86187611]:

Ruppell’s griffon vulture:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

We’ve been talking about a lot of mammals lately, so let’s have an episode about birds. Anbo suggested the harpy eagle not too long ago, and a much longer time ago Eva suggested the harpy eagle and other raptors.

The word raptor can be confusing because it refers to a type of small theropod dinosaur as well as a type of bird. When referring to a bird, the term raptor includes eagles, hawks, vultures, owls, and other birds of prey. And that includes the harpy eagle.

The harpy eagle lives throughout much of Central and South America, although not as far south as Patagonia. It has a wingspan up to about seven feet across, or over 2 meters, and like other raptors, females are larger than males. This isn’t an especially big wingspan for an eagle, but that’s because the harpy eagle hunts in forests and needs short, broad wings that allow it to maneuver through branches.

The harpy eagle is a beautiful bird. It has a light gray head and darker gray or black body, and is white underneath with delicate black stripes on its leg feathers, with broader stripes on its tail and wings. It has a black ring around its neck, huge yellow feet with enormous talons, and a black bill. Each talon, which is the term for a raptor’s claws, can be over 5 inches long, or 13 cm, while its feet in general are bigger than a grown man’s hand, even if the man has especially big hands.

Most striking of all is the harpy eagle’s crest, also sometimes referred to as a crown. The crown is made of long, rounded feathers and most of the time they don’t show very much. When a harpy eagle is alarmed, it raises the feather crown and poofs out the feathers on its face, which makes its head look bigger and sort of owl-shaped.

The harpy eagle mostly lives in lowland rainforests. It mates for life and doesn’t have babies every year. Every two or three years a harpy eagle pair will build a huge nest out of sticks in the top of the tallest tree they can find. The female lays two eggs, which the parents care for together. The female spends most of her time incubating the eggs while the male brings her food, although he will also take a turn incubating while she goes out to stretch her wings and do a bit of hunting herself. When the first egg hatches, the parents bring the baby lots of food and give it lots of attention–but they ignore the other egg at that point, which usually doesn’t hatch as a result. A harpy eagle chick is all white at first, and although it can fly at around 6 months old, its parents will keep feeding it for almost another year.

The harpy eagle is increasingly threatened due to habitat loss and poaching. Because it’s such a big bird, many people shoot it because they think it’s dangerous to livestock or children. But it mostly eats monkeys, sloths, kinkajous and coatis, iguanas, and other medium-sized animals. It’s rare that it attacks livestock since it mostly hunts within the tree canopy for arboreal animals. If your lambs and chickens are sitting on tree branches, you already have a bigger problem than harpy eagles eating them.

A captive breeding program has been started in various zoos around the world, while conservationists work to protect the harpy eagle’s natural habitat so that individuals can be released back into the wild.

We don’t actually know all that much about the harpy eagle, but we know even less about its close relation, the New Guinea harpy eagle. It resembles the harpy eagle but instead of being mostly gray and white, it’s mostly brown and cream in color. It has longer legs and tail but is smaller overall than the harpy eagle, with a wingspan closer to 5 feet across, or 1.5 meters. It has a smaller crest than the harpy eagle too.

Like its South American cousin, the New Guinea harpy eagle hunts in forests, especially rainforests, and spends most of its time perched in a tree, watching for small animals to happen by. Sometimes it will shake a branch to startle any animals in the area to run or fly away, at which point the eagle flies after them. It will even climb around in a tree and poke around in any potential hiding places it finds. It eats tree kangaroos, possums, and other small to medium-sized mammals, but it also eats a lot of birds and reptiles.

While it’s closely related to the harpy eagle, the New Guinea harpy eagle is placed in a different genus. This is also the case for another closely related bird, the crested eagle, which lives in parts of South America. It’s a little smaller than the harpy eagle of South America, with a wingspan of not quite 6 feet across, or 1.8 meters, with a black mask marking over its eyes and a black spot on its crest. Other than that it’s mostly gray.

The two species look enough alike that sometimes people confuse the crested eagle for a young harpy eagle where their ranges overlap. But in at least one documented case, the birds seemingly got confused too.

In early 2004, a team of scientists observing a harpy eagle nest noticed something odd. The nest had one baby in it that was about a month old when the scientists first observed it, and they noticed a crested eagle perched nearby. Every time the scientists visited the nest, the crested eagle seemed to be nearby, although the harpy eagle parents were also around and seemed just fine. The scientists observed the crested eagle adding branches to the nest and even bringing food to the harpy eagle baby. This continued for almost a year. The baby actively solicited food from the crested eagle and happily ate what it brought. At the same time, the harpy eagle parents allowed the crested eagle to approach, although generally the crested eagle didn’t come very close when the harpy eagle parents were around.

The scientists published a short paper about these observations in 2006, including a few hypotheses about the crested eagle’s behavior. They suggested that the crested eagle might have lost her own chick and transferred her maternal instincts to another eagle chick nearby, or she might have just been responding to the eagle chick’s requests for food. She might even have wanted to use that tree for her own nest, but when the bigger, stronger harpy eagles moved in, she abandoned her nest but hung around. A male crested eagle wasn’t observed, so it’s also possible she had lost her mate.

Sometimes different species of raptor do feed each other’s nestlings, although we don’t know why. It also occasionally happens with other types of birds, often male birds whose own nests are still being incubated by the female or by birds whose nest is very close to another nest with babies in it.

Another raptor that hunts animals that live in trees is the crane hawk, also from South America. It lives in forests that are near water and usually hunts by sitting in a tree and watching for potential prey. A lot of the time, though, it hunts like the New Guinea harpy eagle, climbing around in a tree and poking through any nooks and crannies to find animals that are hiding. In the case of the crane hawk, though, it actually has double-jointed legs that allow it to reach a foot into a little hole in a tree to grab prey. Most birds don’t have legs that are flexible enough to allow this behavior. The crane hawk eats a lot of nestling birds, bats, frogs, and other small animals that hide in tree cavities, including some larger invertebrates like cicadas and snails. The only other raptor known to both hunt like this and have double-jointed legs is a genus of African harrier-hawks that aren’t related to the crane hawk. Yes, it’s convergent evolution, at it again!

Let’s get out of the trees now and finish with another raptor Eva suggested. We talked about Ruppell’s griffon vulture in episode 159, but only very briefly.

Ruppell’s griffon vulture is a critically endangered vulture that lives in parts of central and eastern Africa. Unlike the raptors we’ve talked about so far in this episode, it spends a lot of its time soaring at high elevations, so it has really big wings. Its wingspan is as much as 8 and a half feet across, or 2.6 meters. It’s mostly brown and black and like other vultures, it doesn’t have feathers on its head, just a little bit of thin fluff. It will travel enormous distances to find the dead animals it eats, sometimes following herds of migrating animals to scavenge individuals that die of injury or illness. It doesn’t just eat the yummy soft parts of a carcass, it will also eat bones and even the hide of a dead animal. It has a long neck that helps it get to the best bits of its food, uh, from the inside of the carcass. It sometimes even climbs completely inside the rib cage of a dead animal to more easily get every scrap of food.

The way vultures eat is gross, which makes it fun for me to talk about, but vultures are incredibly important. They actually help stop the spread of diseases like rabies and anthrax by eating animals that died of the diseases. The vulture’s digestive tract is so effective that it kills off any viruses that caused the animals to die.

Ruppell’s vulture mates for life. It nests in cliffs, with hundreds of vulture pairs nesting very close together. The female lays one egg, and both parents take care of the baby when it hatches. Even after it can fly, the parents take care of their chick for almost a year while it learns how to find food on its own. Most vultures have relatively weak feet since they don’t use them to catch prey like other raptors, but Ruppell’s vulture has strong feet to help it perch on the cliffs where it nests.

Ruppell’s griffon vulture is one of the highest-flying birds known. It’s been recorded flying as high as 37,000 feet, or 11,300 meters, and we know it was flying at 37,000 feet because unfortunately it was sucked into a jet engine and killed. There’s so little oxygen at that height that a human would pass out pretty much instantly, but the vulture’s blood contains a variant type of hemoglobin that’s more efficient at carrying oxygen than ordinary hemoglobin.

As if all that weren’t enough for one bird, Ruppell’s vulture can also live to be 50 years old. That’s pretty good for an animal that mostly eats rotting and diseased meat.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 320: More Elephants

Thanks to Connor and Pranav who suggested this week’s episode about elephants! It’s been too long since we had an elephant episode and there’s lots more to learn.

Further reading:

Asian elephants could be the maths kings of the jungle

Many wild animals ‘count’

A big difference between Asian and African elephants is diet

Study reveals ancient link between mammoth dung and pumpkin pie

The Asian elephant (left) and the African elephant (right):

The African bush elephant (left) and the African forest elephant (right) [photo taken from this page]:

The osage orange is not an orange and nothing wants to eat it these days:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

We haven’t talked about elephants since episode 200! It’s definitely time for some elephant updates, so thanks to Conner and Pranav for their suggestions!

Conner suggested we learn more about the Asian elephant, which was one we talked about way back in episode 200. The biggest Asian elephant ever reliably measured was a male who stood 11.3 feet tall, or 3.43 meters, although on average a male Asian elephant, also called a bull, stands about 9 feet tall, or 2.75 meters. Females, called cows, are smaller. For comparison, the official height of a basketball hoop is 10 feet, or 3 meters. An elephant could dunk the ball every single time, no problem.

The Asian elephant used to live throughout southern Asia but these days it’s endangered and its range is reduced to fragmented populations in southeast Asia. There are four living subspecies recognized today although there used to be more in ancient times.

Elephants are popular in zoos, but the sad fact is that zoo elephants often don’t live as long as wild elephants, even with the best care. The elephant is adapted to roam enormous areas in a family group, which isn’t possible in captivity. In the wild, though, the elephant is increasingly endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. Even though the Asian elephant is a protected species, people kill elephants because their tusks are valuable as ivory. Tusks are a modified form of really big tooth, and it’s valuable to some people because it can be carved into intricate pieces of art that can sell for a lot of money. That’s it. That’s the main reason why we may not have any elephants left in another hundred years at this rate, because rich people want carvings made in a dead animal’s tooth. People are weird, and not always the good kind of weird.

In happier Asian elephant news, though, a 2018 study conducted in Japan using zoo elephants replicated the results of previous studies that show Asian elephants have numeric competence that’s surprisingly similar to that in humans. That means they understand numbers at least up to ten, and can determine which group of items has more or less items than another group. That sounds simple because humans are really good at this, but most animals can only understand numbers up to three. It goes one, two, three, lots.

Many animals do have a good idea of numbers in a general way even if they can’t specifically count. Gray wolves, for instance, know how many wolves need to join the hunt to successfully bring down different prey animals. Even the humble frog will choose the larger group of food items when two groups are available. But the Asian elephant seems to have an actual grasp of numbers. I specify the Asian elephant because studies with African elephants haven’t found the same numeric ability.

Elephants make a lot of sounds, such as the iconic trumpeting that they make using the trunk. Way back in episode 8 we talked about the infrasonic sounds elephants also make with their vocal folds, sounds that are too low for humans to hear. But the Asian elephant also sometimes makes a high-pitched squeaking sound and until recently, no one was sure how it was produced. It turns out that the elephant makes this sound by buzzing its lips the same way a human does when playing a brass instrument. It’s the first time this particular method of sound production has been found outside of humans.

This is what a squeaking Asian elephant sounds like:

[elephant squeak]

Pranav suggested we learn more about the African forest and bush elephants. Those are the two species of African elephants that are still alive, and they’re also endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. The forest elephant is critically endangered. The forest elephant lives in forests, as you probably guessed, especially rainforests, while the bush elephant lives in grasslands and open forests. It’s sometimes called the savanna elephant since it’s well adapted to life on the savanna.

The forest elephant is only a little larger on average than the Asian elephant, while the bush elephant is much bigger on average. A big bull bush elephant can stand as much as 13 feet tall, or 4 meters, which means it might not dunk the basketball every time because the basketball hoop is awkwardly low.

The bush elephant lives in areas where it’s often extremely hot and dry. Since large animals retain heat, the bush elephant has many adaptations to stay cool. Its ears are really big, for instance, and have lots of blood vessels. This means the blood is close to the surface of the skin where it can shed heat into the air. In hot weather the elephant can flap its ears to help cool its blood faster. But one big adaptation has to do with its skin. The bush elephant’s skin is covered with what look like wrinkles but are actually crevices in the skin only a few micrometers wide. The crevices retain tiny amounts of water that help keep the elephant cool. Since elephants don’t have sweat glands the way people do, they have to bathe in water and mud to get moisture in the crevices in the first place.

Elephants are megaherbivores, meaning they eat mega amounts of plants. This has an impact on forest dynamics, but until recently the only studies on elephant diets and ecological effects were on African elephants. A 2017 study on Asian elephants in Malaysia found that instead of mostly eating sapling trees, the elephants preferred to eat bamboo, grasses, and especially palms.

In comparison, the African bush elephant eats plant parts that other animals can’t chew or digest, including tough stems, bark, and roots. It also eats grass, leaves, and fruit. The African forest elephant eats a lot more fruit and softer plant parts than the bush elephant, and in fact the forest elephant is incredibly important as a seed disperser. Seeds that pass through the forest elephant’s digestive system sprout a lot faster than seeds that don’t, and they also have the added benefit of sprouting in a pile of elephant dung. Instant fertilizer! At least 14 species of tree need the elephant to eat their fruit in order for the seeds to sprout at all. If the forest elephant goes extinct, the trees will too.

Around 11,000 years ago, when the North American mammoths went extinct, something similar happened. Mammoths and other megafauna co-evolved with many plants and trees to disperse their seeds, and in return the animals got to eat some yummy fruit. But when the mammoths went extinct, many plants seeds couldn’t germinate since there were no mammoths to eat the fruit and poop out the seeds. Some of these plants survive but have declined severely, like the osage orange. It produces giant yellowish-green fruits that look like round greenish brains, and although it’s related to the mulberry, you wouldn’t be able to guess that from the fruit. Nothing much eats the fruit these days, but mammoths and other megafauna loved it. The osage orange mostly survives today because the plant can clone itself by sending up fresh sprouts from old roots.

Another plant that nearly went extinct after the mammoth did is a surprising one. Wild ancestors of modern North American squash plants relied on mammoths to disperse their seeds and create the type of habitat where the plants thrived. Mammoths probably behaved a lot like modern elephants, pulling down tree limbs to eat and sometimes pushing entire trees over. This disturbed land is what wild squash plants loved, and if you’ve ever prepared a pumpkin or squash you’ll know that it’s full of seeds. The wild ancestors of these modern cultivated plants didn’t have delicious fruits, though, at least not to human taste buds. The fruit contained toxins that made them bitter, which kept small animals from eating them, because the small animals would chew up the seeds instead of swallowing them whole. But the mammoths weren’t bothered by the toxins and in fact probably couldn’t even taste the bitterness. They thought these wild squash were delicious and they ate a lot of them.

After the mammoth went extinct, the wild squash lost its main seed disperser. As forests grew thicker after mammoths weren’t around to keep the trees open, the squash also lost a lot of its preferred habitat. The main reason why we have pumpkins and summer squash is because of our ancient ancestors. They bred for squash that weren’t bitter, and they planted them and cared for the plants. So even though the main cause of the mammoth’s extinction was probably overhunting by ancient humans, at least we got pumpkin pies out of the whole situation. I mean, I personally would prefer to have both pumpkin pie AND mammoths, but no one asked me.

World Elephant Day is on August 12, and this episode is going live in late March. That means you have a little over four months to get your elephant celebration plans ready!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 318: The Mysterious Malagasy Hippo

Thanks to the Tracing Owls podcast for this week’s suggestion. I’m a guest on that podcast so make sure to check it out (but while my episode is appropriate for younger listeners, most episodes are not, so be warned).

Further reading:

Huge Hippos Roamed Britain One Million Years Ago

Kenyan fossils show evolution of hippos

The Kilopilopitsofy, Kidoky, and Bokyboky: Accounts of Strange Animals from Belo-sur-mer, Madagascar, and the Megafaunal “Extinction Window”

A sort-of Malagasy hippo:

Actual hippo (not from Madagascar, By Muhammad Mahdi Karim – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=121282994):

A modern hippo skull. There’s a reason the hippo is more dangerous to humans than sharks are [By Raul654 – Darkened version of Image:Hippo skull.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=242785]:

A pygmy hippo and its calf!

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about a topic suggested by the host of the podcast Tracing Owls, because I’m actually a guest on that podcast in an upcoming episode! I think the episode releases later this week. I’ll put a link in the show notes, but be aware that while the podcast is interesting and often very funny, with topics that focus on weird stuff related to science, most episodes are not appropriate for younger listeners. (I think my episode should be okay.)

Several years ago now there was a movie called Madagascar, which is about a group of zoo animals that end up shipwrecked on the island of Madagascar. I love this movie, especially the lemur King Julian, but one of my favorite characters is a hippopotamus named Gloria, voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith. The island country of Madagascar is off the southeastern coast of Africa, but as we talked about in episode 77, it’s been separated from the continent of Africa for millions of years and the animals of that country have mostly evolved separately from the animals of Africa. That’s part of why the movie Madagascar is so funny, since the main characters in the movie are all native to Africa—a lion, a zebra, a giraffe, and Gloria the hippo—and don’t know anything about the animals they encounter on Madagascar. Like this guy:

[King Julian clip]

But it turns out that hippos did once live on Madagascar, and that’s what we’re going to learn about today.

We’re not sure when the first humans visited Madagascar, but it was at least 2500 years ago and possibly as much as 9500 years ago or even earlier. By 1500 years ago people were definitely living on the island. It’s likely that hunting parties would travel to Madagascar and stay there for a while, then return home with lots of food, but eventually people decided it would be a nice place to live.

Madagascar is a really big island, the fourth largest island in the world. It’s been separated from every other landmass for around 88 million years, and has been separated from Africa for about 165 million years. Many of the animals and plants that live on Madagascar are very different from the ones living anywhere else in the world as a result.

To put this into perspective, here’s your reminder that the closest living relative of the hippopotamus is the whale, and 60 million years ago the common ancestor of both hippos and whales was a small semi-aquatic animal. That was about 28 million years after Madagascar was on its own in the big wide ocean, and 105 million years after the landmass that we call Africa broke off from the supercontinent Gondwana and began moving very slowly into the position it’s in today. When Madagascar finally broke free of the landmass we now call India, dinosaurs were still the dominant land animal.

So why are there remains of small hippos on Madagascar? How did the hippos get to Madagascar and why aren’t they still around? Did the hippo originate in Africa or in some other place? So many questions!

The ancestors of modern cetaceans, which includes whales and dolphins and their close relations, are found in the fossil record about 52 million years ago, although it might have been 53 or even 54 million years ago depending on which scientist you ask. That’s when the whale side of the suborder Whippomorpha started developing separately from the hippo side. The “morpha” part of Whippomorpha just means “resembling,” and I’m happy to report that the “whippo” part is actually a combination of the words whale and hippo. Truly, it gave me great joy when I learned this fact, because I assumed “whippo” was something in Greek or Latin, or maybe referred to an animal with a whip-like tail. Nope, whale+hippo=whippo.

Anyway, while we know a fair amount about the evolution of cetaceans from their semi-aquatic ancestors, we don’t know much at all about the hippo’s evolution. There’s still a lot of controversy about whether hippos really are all that closely related to whales after all. They share a lot of similarities both physically and genetically, so they’re definitely relations, but whether they’re close cousins is less certain. The confusion is mainly due to not having enough fossils of hippopotamus ancestors.

The modern hippo, the one we’re familiar with today, usually called the common hippo, first appears in the fossil record about six million years ago. We have fossils of animals that were pretty obviously close relations to the common hippo, if not direct ancestors, that date back about 20 million years. But it’s the gap between the hypothesized shared ancestor of both hippos and cetaceans that lived around 60 million years ago, and the first ancestral hippos 20 million years ago, that is such a mystery.

What we do know, though, is that while the common hippo is native to Africa, its ancestors weren’t. Hippo relations once lived throughout Europe and Asia, and probably migrated to Africa around 35 million years ago. In fact, hippos were common throughout Eurasia until relatively recent times. In 2021, a fossilized hippopotamus tooth was found in a cave in Somerset, England that probably lived only one million years ago. That was well before humans migrated into the area, which was a good thing for the humans because this hippo was humongous. It probably weighed around 3 tons, or 3200 kg, while the common hippo is about half that on average.

This particular huge hippo, Hippopotamus antiquus, lived throughout Europe and only went extinct around 550,000 years ago as far as we know. This was during a time that Europe was a lot warmer than it is today and hippos migrated north from the Mediterranean as far as southern England. The common hippo, H. amphibius, the one still around today, also migrated back into Eurasia during this warm period and its fossilized remains have been found in parts of England too.

These days, there are only two living species of hippo, the common hippo and the pygmy hippo. We talked about the pygmy hippo briefly in episode 135, including the astonishing fact that it only grows around 3 feet tall, or 90 cm, and lives in deep forests in parts of west Africa. There also used to be some other small hippos that evolved on islands and exhibited island dwarfism, and which probably weren’t closely related to the pygmy hippo. These include the Cretan dwarf hippopotamus that lived on the Greek island of Crete until around 300,000 years ago and maybe much more recently, and the Cyprus dwarf hippopotamus that lived on the island of Cyprus until only around 10,000 years ago. The Cyprus hippo was the smallest hippo found so far, only about 2.5 feet tall, or 75 cm. There are dogs larger than that! But the small hippo we’re interested in is the Malagasy pygmy hippopotamus.

There actually wasn’t just one hippo species that lived on Madagascar. Scientists have identified three species, although this may change as more studies take place and as new remains are found. The different species probably didn’t all live on the island at the same time, and some researchers think they might have resulted from three different migrations of hippos to the island.

But how did they get to the island? Madagascar is 250 miles away from Africa, or 400 km, way too far for a hippo to swim. The Malagasy hippos were well established on the island, too, not just a few individuals who accidentally reached shore. That means there must have been some way for hippos to reach Madagascar fairly easily at different times.

The best hypothesis right now is that at times when the ocean was overall shallower than it is now, such as during the Pleistocene glaciations, there are enough small islands between Africa and Madagascar that hippos could travel between them pretty easily. Since those islands would be far underwater now, we don’t have any way to know for sure. We can’t exactly dive down and look for hippo fossils, unfortunately.

The really big question, of course, is whether any hippos still survive on Madagascar. We know they were around as recently as 1,000 years ago, because we have subfossil remains. (Just a reminder that subfossil means that the remains are either not fossilized, or only partially fossilized.) Not only that, the bones show butchering marks so we know people killed and ate the hippos. Right now scientists think the hippos were hunted to extinction by the humans who settled on Madagascar, but there’s some evidence that it happened much more recently than 1,000 years ago.

Over the last several hundred years, European colonizers of Madagascar collected stories from Malagasy natives about animals that resemble hippos. More recently, some stories have also been collected by scientists.

In 1995, a biologist named David Burney, who was studying recently extinct animals on Madagascar, interviewed some elderly residents in various villages. He wasn’t actually trying to learn about mystery animals, he was mostly just trying to find the paleontological sites scientists had found decades before. He figured the older residents would remember those scientists’ visits, and he was right. But the residents also had other stories to tell about the bones dug up by scientists. Some of them said those bones belonged to animals they had seen alive.

In one village, several different people told a story about a cow-sized animal that had occasionally entered the village at night. It was dark in color and made distinctive grunting sounds, and had large floppy ears. When some people approached it too closely, it ran back to the water and submerged.

Dr. Burney thought the residents might have seen pictures of an elephant and transferred some of its details to the mystery animal, especially the large size and floppy ears. But when he showed a picture of an elephant to them, they were clear that it wasn’t the same animal. They chose a picture of a hippo instead, but said the animal they’d seen had larger ears. Various witnesses also said the animal had a large mouth with really big teeth, that its feet were flat, and that it was the size of a cow but didn’t have horns. One man even imitated the animal’s call, which Burney reported sounded like a hippopotamus even though the man had never seen or heard a hippo.

Burney was cautious about publishing his findings, and in fact in his article he mentions that even at the time, he and his team of scientists were cautious about even pursuing information about living Malagasy hippos. They didn’t want to be seen as acting like cryptozoologists, which says a lot about how cryptozoologists conduct their research. Cryptozoology isn’t a scientific field of study despite its name. Biologists, paleontologists, and other experts research mystery animals all the time. That’s just part of their job; they don’t have to call themselves something special. It’s unfortunately common that people who call themselves cryptozoologists don’t have a scientific background and may not know how to conduct proper field research. Very often, cryptozoologists also don’t know very much about the animals that definitely exist, and how can you determine what a true mystery animal is if you don’t know about non-mystery animals?

Luckily, Dr. Burney and his team decided to pursue this particular mystery animal, along with some others they learned about. The last hippo-like animal sighting they could pin to a particular date happened in 1976. If the animal in question was a hippo, and it really was alive only about 50 years ago, it might have gone extinct since then. Or it might still be alive and hiding deep in the forests of Madagascar.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

This is what a hippo sounds like, and you hear it all the time on this podcast because I like it:

[hippo sound]

Episode 316: The Blobfish and a Round Bunny

This week we learn more about the blobfish thanks to Matilde’s suggestion, and we’ll also learn about a primitive rabbit.

Further reading:

In Defense of the Blobfish: Why the ‘World’s Ugliest Animal’ Isn’t as Ugly as You Think It Is

A rare rabbit plays an important ecological role by spreading seeds

The Amami Rabbit: A Living Fossil in the Wilds of Amami Ōshima [amazing photos in this article!]

The blobfish as we usually see it:

The blobfish as it looks when it’s in its deep-sea home:

The Amami rabbit is so so so round:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn a little more about the blobfish, which is Matilde’s suggestion, and we’ll also talk about an unusual primitive rabbit that’s still alive today.

We talked about the blobfish briefly in episode 231. The blobfish lives on the sea floor in deep water near Australia and New Zealand. It grows about a foot long at most, or 30 cm, and has weak muscles and a weak skeleton, but it doesn’t need to be any stronger since the intense pressure of the water presses in around the fish all the time. Its gelatinous flesh is slightly less dense than the water around it, which means it can float just above the sea floor without much effort, just drifting along, giving its tail and broad fins a little flap every so often. It eats whatever detritus floats down from far above, although it also really likes to eat small crustaceans that live on the sea floor.

But wait, you may be thinking, I’ve seen pictures of the blobfish and it looks like a pinkish blob with a cartoony frown and a droopy nose. Is that blobfish a different one from the one I just described?

No! The trouble is that the blobfish lives in really deep water, up to 4,000 feet below the surface, or 1200 meters. That means that there’s up to 4,000 feet of water above the fish, and if you’ve ever had to carry a bucket of water more than a few steps, you’ll know that water is really heavy. So the blobfish has 4,000 feet of water pressing on it from all directions. This is naturally called water pressure, and at the depths where the blobfish lives, it’s 120 times higher than water pressure in, for instance, your bathtub.

At that water pressure, you could not survive for even one second. You would be instantly crushed into a messy blob if you were suddenly transported into water that deep, because your body is adapted to live on the earth’s surface. But the opposite is true for the blobfish. If it was suddenly transported to the earth’s surface, or at least the water’s surface, without all that comfortable pressure keeping its body in place like a really big exoskeleton you can swim through, the blobfish would expand. And that’s exactly what happens when a fishing net catches a blobfish and pulls it to the surface. It just goes BLOB all over the place.

The blobfish was voted the world’s ugliest animal in 2013, which doesn’t seem fair since no one looks good when they’ve exploded into a blob.

When the blobfish is alive in its deep-sea home, it’s silvery or grayish with little spikes all over its body. It’s a member of the family Psychrolutidae, sometimes called toadfish, and it has little black eyes near the top of its head sort of like a toad. Its head is large and wide, while its body tapers to a thin little flat tail.

We know almost nothing so far about the blobfish, but we do know a bit about some of its close relatives like the blob sculpin. The blob sculpin lives in the North Pacific Ocean in even deeper water than the blobfish, up to 9200 feet deep, or 2800 meters. That’s about a mile and three-quarters deep, or almost 3 kilometers. Deep-sea animals are mostly solitary, but the blob sculpin gathers in large numbers to spawn. The females choose a nesting area and they all lay their eggs in the same place. Then the males release sperm into the water that fertilizes the eggs. Some nesting areas have been found to contain well over 100,000 eggs! Not only that, but the females guard the nesting area, and as they hover over their eggs, their slow-moving fins help keep the eggs clean of sand and sediment, which allows the eggs to absorb more oxygen. It’s the first documented case of a deep-sea fish taking care of its eggs.

Deep-sea animals often live for a long time, and it’s estimated that the blobfish might live to be as much as 130 years old.

That’s about all we know about the blobfish right now, so let’s finish with some information about a different cute round animal, although not a blobby one. It’s the Amami rabbit that only lives on two tiny islands off the southern coast of Japan.

The Amami rabbit used to live throughout Asia but as modern species of rabbit evolved, it eventually died out on the mainland. Now it only survives on these two small islands, and although it’s now a protected species, it’s still endangered. It’s especially vulnerable to habitat loss and introduced predators like dogs and cats. There are probably only about 5,000 individuals alive today, most of them on Amami Island with only a few hundred on Tokuno Island.

The Amami rabbit differs from other rabbits in a number of ways. Its eyes are smaller, its ears are smaller, and it’s shaped differently from other rabbits, with a chonky body and short legs. It also lives in forested areas instead of open grasslands. It’s nocturnal, with thick dark brown fur and long claws that it uses to dig burrows and climb steep hillsides.

A female Amami rabbit only has babies once a year, called kits or kittens, and usually only one or two kits are born at a time. In autumn the mother rabbit digs a special burrow that may be several feet deep, or up to a meter, somewhere away from her regular burrow. She brings leaves in to line the nesting chamber, where she gives birth to her kits. But she doesn’t stay with her babies all the time. In fact, she leaves them and only comes back to feed them about once a day or every other day. To keep them safe while she’s gone, she closes the entrance to the burrow so snakes and other predators can’t get in. When she returns, she digs the entrance open and spends a few minutes feeding her kits. Then she leaves again and closes the entrance behind her.

When the babies are a little over a month old, they start digging their way out of the nest on their own to explore. At that point the mother leads them to her home burrow where they stay for a few more months before they leave to find their own territories.

The Amami rabbit eats plants, especially grass and ferns, but it also eats acorns and fruit. A study published in January 2023 reported that the rabbit eats the fruit of a parasitic flowering plant called Balanophora, including swallowing the seeds whole. The seeds travel through the rabbit’s digestive system unharmed and the rabbit poops them out later, which allows them to sprout in an area far from the parent plant. Since Balanophora doesn’t produce chlorophyll and instead needs a host plant that can provide it with nutrients, having a rabbit help spread its seeds is important. This discovery was a surprise to the scientists studying the rabbit, because modern species of rabbit don’t usually eat seeds.

Who knows how many more surprises the Amami rabbit and the blobfish might hold? Hopefully scientists will continue to learn more about them so they can be better protected.

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